Morton Feldman’s On Time and the Instrumental Factor

By Paul Beaudoin, Composer & Clarinetist

Written for the concert American Modernism Seen & Heard: The Abstract and Geometric Tradition in Music and Painting, 1930-1975 performed on Dec 20, 1992 at Carnegie Hall. 

In 1949, John Cage introduced 24 year old Morton Feldman to fellow composers Earle Brown, Christian Wolff and pianist David Tudor, but, more influential to Feldman were the new painters he befriended: Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Robert Rauschenberg, Richard Lippold and closest of all was his lifelong friend, Philip Guston. For Feldman, this “new painting made me more desirous of a sound world more direct, more immediate, more physical than anything that had existed heretofore. “  “My desire here was not to ‘compose,’ but to project sounds into time, free from a compositional rhetoric.” Feldman created compositions using graph scores that designated which register should be played, the time structure for the entire work, and what became Feldman’s trademark–a soft, almost inaudible dynamic level. Feldman grew increasingly dissatisfied with the realizations of these scores, by “allowing the sounds to be free –I was also liberating the performer” and the music sounded too improvisational. “It was too one-dimensional. It was like painting a picture where at some place there is always a horizon.” Feldman moved to create music which specifically defined pitch but allowed the temporal dimension to remain indeterminate, thus creating a sonic world which Feldman described as “each instrument is living out its own individual life in its own individual sound world.” By 1967, Feldman began abandoning graph scores, and his return to precisely notated music is the composition On Time and the Instrumental Factor, completed on August 1, 1969.

“What I picked up from painting is what every art student knows. And it’s called the picture plane. I substituted for my ears the aural plane and it’s a kind of balance, but it has to do with foreground and background. It has to do with how do I keep it on the plane from falling off, from having the sound fall on the floor. Most people have a sound that doesn’t fall on the floor by giving it a system. Harmony or twelve-tone… Now, this could be an element of the aural plane, where I’m trying to balance, a kind of co-existence between the chromatic field and those notes selected from the chromatic field that are not in chromatic series. And so I’m involved like a painter, involved with gradations within the chromatic world. And the reason I do this is to have the ear make those trips. Back and forth, and it does get more and more saturated. But I work very much like a painter, insofar as I’m watching the phenomena and I’m thickening and I’m thinning and I’m working on that way and just watching what it needs. I mean, I have the skill to hear it… I’m the only one that works that way. Buts it’s like Rothko, just a question of keeping that tension or that stasis. You find it in Matisse, the whole idea of stasis… I’m’ involved in stasis. It’s frozen, at the same time it’s vibrating.”